METRA

PTC on Your Metra
Means a Safer Ride

Workers install PTC equipment on one of Metra’s eleven commuter lines (Metra, youtube.com/MetraCommuterRail/)

Metra is one of the largest and most complex commuter rail systems in North America, serving Cook, DuPage, Will, Lake, Kane and McHenry counties in northeastern Illinois. The agency provides service to and from downtown Chicago with 242 stations over 11 routes totaling nearly 500 route miles and approximately 1,200 miles of track. Metra operates nearly 700 weekday trains, providing nearly 290,000 passenger trips each weekday.

Commitment to Safety

While many riders might not be familiar with PTC, its technology will make an already safe system even safer. The state-of-the-art system works by constantly tracking a train’s speed and location, and stopping the train if the engineer is speeding or ignores a signal or work zone restriction, potentially saving lives in cases of human error.

 

In fact, rail transportation is already one of the safest ways to get around in America. Studies show that railroads cause significantly fewer fatalities than automobiles and other forms of transportation. This is in large part a result of an industry-wide emphasis on safety.

Innovating To Meet Challenges

But PTC is a complicated system. It is not an off-the-shelf technology and must be built from the ground up. It’s also expensive. Metra expects to spend about $400 million to install PTC. Finding that money has been a major challenge: Like other commuter railroads that rely on public subsidies, Metra must fund most of that work out of its already inadequate capital budget.

 

The sheer scale of the work is also daunting. Onboard computers and communications systems had to be installed on more than 500 engines, cab cars and EMUs. Installation on each train typically took between nine and twelve days. Because of their commitment to service and their riders, Metra was able to perform installations without reducing service.

 

In addition, hundreds of antennas, towers, servers and communications units had to be installed along the right of way, and signals and switching points must be upgraded. Finally a centralized back office was created to store and communicate PTC information to the trains and wayside locations.

 

To carry out this mandate, Metra hired dozens of new carmen to install PTC on its equipment, dozens of signalmen and others to install PTC along the right of way and several signal engineers to design and install the overall system and back office. As of September 2018, Metra was finished with all its onboard and wayside equipment installation.

 

In addition, the PTC software had to be customized to each railroad and its specific attributes. This required that the specific features of every Metra line be precisely mapped in the field and then translated into the PTC software. Metra also created a special PTC lab to test PTC system operations as they are developed and as future software and hardware upgrades are implemented.

Engineers monitor performance of the communications between the train and the PTC system during a simulated train run in Metra’s PTC lab (Metra, metrarail.com)

One of the main PTC challenges is the requirement that any train operating over another railroad’s tracks must be able to communicate seamlessly with the back office of that railroad’s PTC system, in addition to its own system. Nowhere is that more difficult than Chicago, with its dense railroad network that operates 1,300 to 1,400 trains each day. Metra’s PTC system will have to work with the PTC systems of 13 other railroad companies, and on one line alone, it will have to work with five.

Making Solid Progress

While there is still work to be done, great strides have been made.

 

Metra intends to have PTC fully implemented on all 11 lines by early 2020, which is allowed under the PTC legislation as long as certain milestones are met by the end of 2018. Metra has already met those milestones.

 

It has acquired the needed radio spectrum. It has completed the installation of all onboard and wayside equipment, and every required employee has been trained. And it has one of its lines in revenue service demonstration. (Four lines owned by freight railroads are expected to have PTC fully operational this year.)

PTC implementation is the next step in the journey to the safest possible railroads, on Metra and across the country. With PTC in place, you will be able to feel even safer every time you ride Metra.

Additional Safety Measures

Metra takes a multi-faceted approach to ensuring that its customers arrive safely at their destinations. From the signage and platform announcements to the conductors making sure that customers board and alight from trains smoothly, safety is a part of its culture. It proactively works to educate riders and the public about how to act safely around tracks and trains.

 

  • Through outreach programs such as Operation Lifesaver and crossing enforcement blitzes, Metra’s Safety Department works daily to educate the public about the importance of safety. Its Operation Lifesaver team conducts nearly 950 free presentations across the region annually for schoolchildren at all levels, school bus drivers, truck drivers, emergency responders and other organizations. The goal is to enhance awareness of the hazards of disregarding pedestrian and roadway railroad warning devices and prevent accidents involving trains.

 

  • Metra’s annual Safety Poster and Essay Contest is yet another way it engages the region’s youngest residents about railroad safety, allowing them to take what they’ve learned through Operation Lifesaver presentations and classroom safety instruction to create their own safety messages. Through the contest website (www.metracontest.com), teachers, parents and students can access classroom materials and information about railroad safety. In June, Metra completed its 12th contest, with more than 2,200 entries from students across the region.

 

  • The safety team also goes out to approximately 50 stations a year to conduct safety blitzes, distributing literature and talking to customers about respecting the warning devices and following other behaviors that will ensure their safety near trains

 

  • Metra’s Safety Department, in coordination with Metra Police, local police agencies and freight railroads across the region, also conduct periodic grade crossing enforcement blitzes to ensure pedestrians and motorists do not violate the grade crossing warning devices. And if employees or customers report safety concerns at a particular location, it schedules additional enforcement activities for those locations. The intention is to keep everyone who comes in contact with the railroad safe, and in some cases this requires that the issuance of a warning or a formal citation.

 

  • Metra’s safety outreach also extends to the region’s emergency responders. When an unfortunate event occurs on the railroad, local police and fire agencies are often the first on the scene and need to understand how to safely conduct themselves around tracks and equipment. Metra is responsible for ensuring all emergency responders of the 110 plus communities it travels through are trained in evacuating Metra’s equipment in the event of a major derailment or incident. This training is required by federal regulation and is offered free.

 

  • In 2016, Metra became the first U.S. commuter railroad to have a Confidential Close Call Reporting System that includes every union involved in the railroad’s operations. The voluntary safety reporting system is designed to proactively address safety issues and create a more positive safety culture. According to the FRA, the system complements existing safety programs, builds a positive safety culture, creates an early warning system, focuses on problems instead of people, provides an incentive for learning from errors and targets the root cause of an issue, not the symptom.

 

  • Also in 2016, Metra successfully pushed for an amendment to the Illinois Vehicle Code that increased fines for drivers who disregard activated railroad gates and warning lights from $250 to $500 for a first offense and from $500 to $1,000 for a second or subsequent offense.

 

  • This year, Metra has begun to install a new DVR system that includes inward-facing cameras in the locomotives, cabcars and Highliner cars (EMUs).